MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides

Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book-'Em

Middlesex(May 13, 2004) Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, is narrated by Calliope Stephanides as an historical re-telling of her life from the perspective of Cal, the 41-year old male she grew up to be. But don't be misled by the apparent focus on sexual identity. While the issue of Cal's hermaphroditism is handled informatively and sensitively, in the end it is only a subplot to this tale.

The protagonist's "5-alpha reductase deficiency recessive gene syndrome" is, in reality, the ploy that allows Cal to tell a complex and intriguing three-generational story of the Greek-American Stephanides family. The reader follows Cal's grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, and two generations of their offspring as they escape from Turkish havoc in their isolated, small Greek village to the city of Detroit and the Depression, prohibition, automotive assembly lines, WW II, race riots, the 60's, and today's globalization.

Eugenides is an accomplished social historian and a masterful storyteller. He weaves his tale around his words with beautifully wrought, evocative description, fanciful and imaginative plotting, and graceful metaphor. This author seems to love hearing himself go on at length (Middlesex is 529 pages long), but he is good enough to get away with it.

This Book-'Em choice was unanimously enjoyed. Members found the book: "kooky," "so personal," "even the secondary characters are great," "insanity presented in such an amiable way," "colorful," "so rich," "always maintains the humor, never sounds desperate."

Eugenides' portrayal of Detroit thru multiple eras and his ability as a male author to so accurately and credibly express the thoughts, feelings, postures and perspectives of a female character were considered true strengths of the book. Of interest was the way Middlesex raised the specter of several recent Book-'em selections. We were reminded of the assimilation experience of The Namesake, gender identity issues in She's Not There, and the religious overtones in Liars and Saints.

Fate versus free will, a common literary theme, provided much to discuss. Just as Cal lives in a middle ground between male and female, there is no clear answer to whether fate or free will controls the plot. Greek culture is fatalistic in nature. But Cal (Eugenides) then tells us, "Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind." Fate versus free will, nature versus nurture, Greek versus American -- there are many layers of meaning to this novel's title.

Middlesex is an unusual, multidimensional read. And the evening's stuffed grape leaves, Greek olives, and phyllo-wrapped spinach (spanikopita) were the perfect complement to the book. Together, these were ingredients for a great book club night.

FROM THE EDITORS: Find reviews contributed by other local book clubs at: www.larchmontgazette.com. We'd love to hear from other Larchmont book clubs and readers; email us at publisher@larchmontgazette.com

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